Sam Harris on the Ten Commandments

Continuing my series on the Letter to a Christian Nation, we’ll take a look at Sam Harris’ criticisms of the Ten Commandments and his criticism of Christian morality more generally. He introduces his section of the Ten Commandments as follows:

“They are, after all, the only passages in the Bible so profound that the creator of the universe felt the need to physically write them himself – and in stone. As such, one would expect these to be the greatest lines ever written, on any subject, in any language. Here they are. Get ready…”[i]

Even before getting to his criticisms Harris already sets the stage with a number of false assumptions which he doesn’t attempt to defend. First is the idea that because it is written by God it will be the most profound “on any subject.” Why would you assume that? These are moral and legal commandments. You can say they should be the most profound moral and legal commandments, but it is not clear why you would consider them to be the best thing written on any subject when they only deal with one subject. That is incoherent. Since there are different standards of evaluation for different subjects, this doesn’t make sense. Secondly, this sarcastic introduction tacitly assumes that you and Sam Harris, indeed everybody, should immediately be able to recognize them as the most profound things ever written. There is also no reason to assume that. In fact there are many reasons to think that this is not true. Do people like being told what to do? No generally not. Do human societies, based on what we know from history and anthropology, have a good sense of right and wrong? I don’t know how you could look at history and think the answer to that question is yes. Do most people prefer the truth over lies? Only when it is in their interest to do so. So is there reason to assume that people will immediately recognize the commandments of God to be profound and worthy of following? There are many reasons to think that many will reject it vehemently and that many who accept it will not do so with much enthusiasm.

He then lists the commandments which I will do here also for easy reference ( Exodus 20:1-17):

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

“You shall have no other gods before me.

“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worshipthem; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lordmade the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

12 “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

13 “You shall not murder.

14 “You shall not commit adultery.

15 “You shall not steal.

16 “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

Harris’s basic tact is to say that some of the rules are not about morality, others of them we wouldn’t need to be told, and others are not dealing with pressing enough concerns. He begins, “The first four injunctions have nothing whatsoever to do with morality.”[ii] This is another claim that Harris makes without argument, perhaps thinking that it would be self-evident. Clearly, if a personal God does exist, then honouring him would be a significant part of morality. Harris seems to have tacitly presupposed atheism here, meaning that if this is an argument and not just an unsupported claim, it is circular. If God does exist, refraining from invoking him in a disrespectful way, is a very basic form of respect toward the most holy and authoritative being in existence. He also says that the first four rules are under a death penalty, which I can’t find in the text here. Death penalties are later attached to some of these rules, but not all of them.

He continues: “Commandments 5 through 9 do address morality, though it is questionable how many human beings ever honored their parents or abstained from committing murder, adultery, theft, or perjury because of them. Admonishments of this kind are found in virtually every culture throughout recorded history.”[iii] So does this mean that these admonishments should have been left out? It is not clear what Harris means here. The fact that it agrees with other cultures doesn’t mean that it is not inspired and you do not have to independently show that every single individual line of the Bible is divinely inspired. Again, Harris seems to assume that every single word of the Bible should resonate overwhelmingly with him. Is it reasonable to think if the Bible were inspired by God it should agree with our prior convictions about morality? It is as though, if we read a book inspired by a morally perfect, omniscient being, we would have nothing new to learn about morality, and that it should conveniently confirm all we already thought we knew. So Harris dismisses some of the commandments because they are part of general moral apprehensions and dismisses other commandments because they are not part of general moral apprehensions. This is a good example of unfalsifiable skepticism. If God had something new to tell Sam Harris about morality, how would he communicate it? If it’s part of general moral apprehensions then Harris would already believe it, and if it is not, he would dismiss it for that reason.

He claims that it is a “scientific fact that moral emotions – like a sense of fair play or an abhorrence of cruelty – precede any exposure to scripture.”[iv] I doubt this is a scientific fact. The only fields of science where ideas like these are supported are sociobiology and evolutionary psychology which are highly speculative fields filled to the brim with evolutionary just-so stories that have no empirical corroboration. As I’ve emphasized in previous posts on Harris, if you take a look at history, it is astounding how many established practices there are in societies all over the world which were horrifically cruel and this is still to a great extent true in many places in the world today. How can it be plausibly said that the people in those societies at those times all felt a strong instinctive “abhorrence” to cruelty? It makes sense that there are certain moral emotions which are universal, but there is a great deal of variance in how those emotions are manifested and prioritized in different societies, and they certainly could not support everything that Harris and other Westerners take as self-evident. Harris appeals to the presence of altruism, sexual fidelity, a dislike of theft and murder among chimpanzees to support the notion that our moral emotions precede scripture. Firstly, conclusions of this sort are often made very hastily. For example, say you see one chimpanzee snatching some food from another chimpanzee. The chimpanzee who had been stolen from reacts violently. Have we witnessed moral disapprobation of theft or have we simply witnessed a chimpanzee who got angry that his food was taken away from him? We must be careful about superimposing human values on interactions that can just as easily be explained in terms of pure, mindless self-interest. If a group of chimpanzees gang up on another chimpanzee is that moral disapprobation or does it have more to do with violated power hierarchies? Is the focus on the act itself or the fact that it disadvantages someone important? There has also been a study in which infants watch a doll show of some kind with one doll doing something oppressive to the other doll and the other doll doing something nice. They are then given a choice about which doll to play with. The fact that the infants always reject the “oppressive” doll was taken as evidence of an innate moral sense. Once again, this is a hasty conclusion as it can just as plausibly be explained by the fact that the infants are merely afraid of the aggressive or exploitative doll. We must also be careful about what we call “moral” behaviour. Is all behaviour that looks altruistic necessarily moral? Not if it comes from instinct or social conditioning and involves no actual concept of right and wrong. Moral behaviour is knowing right and wrong and then choosing the right action even when you are inclined to a different course of action. That is not what these chimpanzees are doing. Arguably, moral approbation and disapprobation requires a concept of morality. You can only say that moral behaviour is present among chimpanzees if you change our concept of morality beyond what anyone would recognize as morality. When mothers protect their young in the animal world, that is also an obvious example of altruism, but this was not thought of as an example of moral behaviour, because we understand how instinctive it is.

Regardless, the presence of some moral behaviour among animals is far from supporting the idea the modern Western ideals are based upon basic intuitions that everybody has. If that were true, then all societies and cultures would have the same collection of moral beliefs as Westerners. If that were true then the earliest humans right up to today should not have had any established practices which seem clearly immoral to us and should have had basically the same ideas about morality that we do. Is that what we find? That is (very dramatically) not what we find. Moral intuitions has a worse track record than the Bible in encouraging wrong action. Think of all the times when someone did something terrible from the absolute conviction that it is right. What about the person who is severely wronged and whose moral intuitions tell him to commit a violent vengeance against the perpetrator? Think about the atrocities that communist atheists committed during the 20th century from the conviction that what they were doing was right? The set of universal moral values is small. It is true that pretty much everyone would show some altruism, but more interesting is the enormous amount of variance in the application of the value. Many societies apparently thought it was compatible with copious amounts of cruelty or that it should be limited your own family or tribe, that it is only appropriate in certain circumstances, to certain people, and that it can be suspended in other circumstances. Altruism may be present but is its prioritization over other values and its application to all people, present in every society? Definitely not. Just look at our own society and how easily our thinkers justify lying for the mere reason of sparing someone’s feelings. It is clear that if these moral feelings are universal, they are very weak, fickle and easily manipulated through social conditioning. In order to influence behaviour on any significant level they require very strong reinforcement by social sanction. Moral emotions are competing for attention among many other interests and emotions and human beings need to be given a reason to follow them over their own desires. Moral emotions are part of the general jumble of thoughts and emotions that pass through consciousness. The emotions themselves might be universals but what is there to tell us that these emotions take priority over the other contents of our consciousness? Just think about the fact that civilized society is impossible without law enforcement. We have lived for so long in societies built upon good government and rule of law that we don’t even recognize the astounding and rather disturbing fact that we human beings cannot live in relative harmony without the threat of violence by someone stronger than us constantly over our heads. That is, after all, what government is. Think about that for a second.

Harris goes on: “And what are we to make of the fact that, in bringing his treatise to a close, the creator of the universe could think of no human concerns more pressing and durable than the coveting of servants and livestock.”[v] The desire for the possessions and relationships of those around us is a great cause of immoral actions and misery. It is the basis of malcontent, theft, adultery, envy, jealousy, many instances of murder, rebellion and revolution. Covetousness is the origin point of many evils and causes a great deal of misery. This is especially true of those in poorer circumstances. To people who know what it is to want, covetousness may poison their lives in profound and far-reaching ways. So, it is not clear why Harris thinks this is something that doesn’t deserve special attention.

Harris says that one Jain injunction is better than the Ten Commandments: “’Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture, or kill any creature or living being.’ Imagine how different our world might be if the Bible contained this as its central precept. Christians have abused, oppressed enslaved insulted tormented, tortured and killed people in the name of God for centuries, on the basis of a theologically defensible reading of the Bible.”[vi] Harris wonders what would happen if this were the central precept of the Bible. The Bible does contain a principle which implies this Jain principle and Jesus calls it one of the two most important commandments (Mark 12:28): Love your neighbour as yourself. Abuse, torture and mistreatment are never advocated in the Bible. Oppression is a vague term but the Hebrew prophets often condemn oppression of the poor, the widow, the orphan and the foreigner. Whether someone has insulted is very subjective. People take offense even if they have not really been wronged or anything false said to them. Yes people have been killed in the name of God, but people have also been killed in the name of good government and rule of law, and Harris would think this has been legitimate. A few pages back, Harris said that the value that slavery is wrong “had to be spread at the point of a bayonet throughout the Confederate South…”[vii] In other words, Harris is fine with values being spread at the point of a bayonet as long as he agrees with the value. It is significant that Harris says that it is “Christians” who have done this, because Christian theology has always maintained that the Old Covenant legal penalties are inapplicable today and, in the New Testament, the worst that could happen to heretics or unbelievers is excommunication. This means that it is not defensible from a Christian point of view to oppress or to kill in the name of God. We also know that loving your neighbour as yourself is said by Jesus to be one of the two most important commandments, implying that if any other part of the Bible appears it contradict it, it should take precedence. The meaning of “neighbour” here is also made universal by Jesus’s explanation of the law. When asked “who is my neighbour” (Luke 10:29) he tells the Parable of the Good Samaritan, showing clearly that loving one’s neighbour should cross religious and nationalist lines, because the Samaritans were heretics from the Jewish perspective and were not Jews in a national sense either. So the Samaritans were not Jewish either theologically or nationally. You can only call the killing of unbelievers and heretics theologically defensible if you ignore the New Testament. If you consider the New Testament, it actually becomes quite indefensible.

Moreover, it is interesting that he accuses Christians of doing all these things “based on a theologically defensible reading of the Bible.” What replaces the Bible as the source of morality and truth on atheism according to Harris? Moral sentiment and human rationality. To turn Harris’s point against him, a philosophically defensible “interpretation” of human rationality in light of atheism, is that moral nihilism is true. In fact, that is what a large proportion of the most influential atheist thinkers have argued very convincingly. If moral nihilism is true then all evil is fine, which means that moral nihilism is a morally abominable position to hold to if morality is objective as Harris believes. Also, some moral intuitions may be universal, but human beings have “interpreted” them very differently and in ways that justified terrible cruelties for thousands of years. In other words, whatever problems Harris wants to lay at the feet of the Bible, his own chosen sources of authority ( moral intuition and human rationality) is in a much more precarious position when it comes to what has been plausibly justified in their name. Harris might reply that those things are not plausible. But this would prove the point I’m making. His ideas about what is plausible and not is very different apparently from the 20th century communists who committed genocide, showing the unreliability of the things he wants to enshrine as the new authorities in a secular culture.

[i] Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York: Knopf, 2006) Kindle Edition.Loc 207

[ii] Ibid., Loc 220

[iii] Ibid., Loc 220-224

[iv] Ibid., Loc 224

[v] Ibid., 229

[vi] Ibid., 234

[vii] Ibid., Loc 196 -201

7 thoughts

  1. Do you attend Church each Sunday? If so, you are violating the fourth Commandment, by not remembering that the Sabbath is Saturday – actually from sundown Friday night, till sundown Saturday evening. 😳


    1. It doesn’t seem to me that there is any instance in the Law of Moses where the Sabbath is identified with either Saturday or Sunday. The emphasis is on having a seventh day, not on which specific day it is. Nevertheless, there is controversy among Christians about whether the sabbath law has been abrogated in the New Testament. In defending the Ten Commandments against Harris’s illegitimate criticisms, I don’t imply that none of them had been abrogated in the New Testament.


  2. You seem to believe in an objective morality? Do you? If so, why aren’t you following all of the commandments of the bible since all of them are to be followed, not just the first ten?

    “7 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to put into effect. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”


    1. Thanks for another reaction. I have responded to your claim that the abrogation of Old Testament laws implies that morality is not objective, in response to your comment about my last post on Old Testament law.

      You have quoted Matthew 5:17, but I’m not sure which translation, because the word that is translated “put into effect” in your quote is normally translated “fulfill” or “complete” in every translation I know about. The Greek word “plerosai” there means fulfill or complete which is the way it is translated in the rest of the New Testament. Which translation are you quoting? You have quoted the only passage in the new testament which may seem to indicate the persistence of Old Testament ceremonial law. But given the meaning of “plerosai”, Jesus was saying that he is not repealing but completing the Old Testament law, which is what he did by being perfectly obedient. If something has been fulfilled or completed it is no longer in effect. That is the message of the rest of the New Testament including other teachings of Jesus. The main text here is Acts 15 where the Apostles determined that Gentiles only need to follow a handful of Old Testament laws) Other passages include Mark 7:19, Mark 2:23, Acts 10:28, Romans 14:5-6, Galatians 4:9-11, Colossians 2:16-17, Romans 14.


      1. I quoted Matthew 5 with words that make sense. A lot of Christians want to read it so they don’t have to follow the OT’s laws, so they try to claim that it has to read “17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” This is from the NSRV version.

        Now, abolish means “to end the observance or effect of (something, such as a law) : to completely do away with (something) : ANNUL” (all my definitions come from Fulfil has a couple of different meanings. One is be “to bring to an end”. Another is “put into effect”. When Christians try to claim that fulfil means end, that makes the sentence meaningless. “Do not think that I have come to end the observance or effect of the law or the prophets; I have come not to end the observance or effect of but to bring to an end{the law of the prophets}.” Why would Jesus supposedly say he was going to bring thing to an end and then say, in the same sentence, he wasn’t going to bring things to an end? Read it again with the different definition of “fulfill”: “17 “Do not think that I have come to end the observance or effect of the law or the prophets; I have come not to end the observance or effect of but put into effect.” This makes more sense with the following commands that breaking the commandments will get you called the least in the “kingdom of heaven”. If the laws are to be thrown out, then why would anyone still need to worry about breaking or teaching them? We also have Jesus saying that the scribes and the pharisees, who do indeed follow the OT laws, are righteous and one has to be even more observant than they are.

        The OT isn’t just ceremonial law, another attempt that Christians often use to try to avoid having to follow this god’s law. Ceremonial law, and you seem to be using this definition of ceremony:” a formal act or series of acts prescribed by ritual, protocol, or convention” would be those laws regarding ceremonies conducted for the worship of this god. You might be using ceremony defined as this: “prescribed procedures” but I don’t think so. The laws in the OT were to be followed constantly.

        We have Jesus claiming that all of the laws of his father are based on two main ones. There is no where he says that the others are not to be followed. There is the argument to be made that he interprets the law differently, and is putting that into effect, but again, we have nothing to show that the laws are to be ignored. We see Jesus say that following the laws gets you the best position in heaven.

        Yep, Acts does have the apostles changing what was said by Jesus. This isn’t surprising since they, if they existed, were looking to expand their reach. This is the same with Paul, who also was trying to spread his version of Christianity and seemed to know that following the laws of the OT would not be popular. Compare this “19 Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, 20 but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled[e] and from blood.” To what JC supposedly said: “19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Per Jesus, action must be taken to follow the laws, not just assuming he is the only one who has to.

        What appears to be happening, is a Jewish man who has decided that he knows the only correct interpretation of these laws, and no one else does. This is very common among Christians who vary wildly on what they want their god to hate and to approve of. In the other verses you indicate we have Peter saying ““You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” Then we have Jesus saying ““I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” And calls a woman of another culture a “dog”, only relenting after being called “master”.

        Christians do like to claim that other Christians aren’t doing the religion “right”. You also like to claim that atheists can’t judge your god’s morality or your own. That is of course not the case since morality isn’t dependent on your god since that god isn’t objective either, per the changes depicted in the bible. If you can argue that it is okay for your god to commit genocide, and then claim it is not okay for a human to do so, then your morality is based on what something is, not an objective good or evil. And if you say anything that god does is good by definition, all we have is a might equals right argument. As for your claim “To young people today it is cool and hip to listen to certain types of music and to regard orthodox Christianity as homophobic or bigoted in some vague, generalized way.” Nope, young people today know that Christianity is indeed homophobic and bigoted and in very specific ways when the bible says that killing people who disagree with you is okay. As soon as you can show your god exists, then the claims of “sin” are no more than imaginary crimes against an imaginary being. All your claims depend on that one presupposition. This is the real argument atheists use : Christianity is likely wrong because there is no evidence for the god or the essential claims of the bible. We also have morality changing in the bible, dependent on the time and worshipers. Each Christian claims to have the right interpretation of these writings by an ignorant and frightened people, but we have yet to see that any of these interpretations are any more true than the others. In that Christians contradict each other, there is little reason to think that their religion is based on reality.


      2. When I asked what translation you were quoting that had “put into effect” instead of “fulfill” you didn’t answer except to quote a translation that does say “fulfill” and then say that that is “NSRV” version ( probably the NRSV). So which translation were you quoting in your first comment which has “put into effect” instead of “fulfill”? The NRSV also translates plerosai as “fulfill”.

        It looks like you begin by claiming that Christians translate Matthew 5:17 a particular way just because they want it mean something. But I can similarly claim that you want the word to mean “put into effect” instead of “fulfilled” so that you can prove your point. Making appeals to motivations that are hidden from you is a bad argument and is something you’ve done without offering any evidence. Every party is motivated by wanting it’s side of the argument to be true. if that is true of Christians, you cannot exempt yourself from it either, which means it ends up being a self-defeating argument. But apart from that, the most apt meaning of “Plerosai” is “complete” or “fulfill”. That is not because Christians have changed the meaning of Greek words.

        You do say that fulfill can mean “bring to an end” and the other is “put into effect”. You argue: “When Christians try to claim that fulfil means end, that makes the sentence meaningless. “Do not think that I have come to end the observance or effect of the law or the prophets; I have come not to end the observance or effect of but to bring to an end{the law of the prophets}.” Why would Jesus supposedly say he was going to bring thing to an end and then say, in the same sentence, he wasn’t going to bring things to an end?”

        Abolish carries a negative connotation as in that something is bad and has to be done away with. While fulfill has a positive meaning. Fulfill means that whatever is being fulfilled is a good thing and should be accomplished rather than a bad thing that has to be abolished. So the sentence makes sense even if the implication for both “abolish” and “fulfill” is an end to the observance of some laws in the Old Testament.

        But I will argue that it doesn’t make sense to interpret plerosai as you have done for the following reason.The verse says that he has “come”, as in come to earth, or come to this ministry of his, to complete the law, implying that that it should be accomplished once he has left or his ministry is ended. You may say that Jesus was completing the law in sense of teaching people to better follow it. But then that means that Jesus is not completing the law, it would be us who completes it, with some better instructions or something. Jesus is quite explicit here that he is going to be the one to complete the law, not cheerlead on the sidelines for us to do it. So if Jesus has “come” to complete the law, this implies that when he “goes”, the law should be fulfilled. This means that your reading of “fulfill” doesn’t make sense. Even if you see it as “put into effect”, if Jesus’s ministry has no implications for our observance of the law, then nothing was really done and it is just business as usual as far as the law is concerned and Jesus did not really accomplish anything. 

        But doesn’t Jesus say something about “until heaven and earth passes away.” Let’s take a look:

        “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

        Some people interpret this as saying that the law will not disappear until heaven and earth pass away, but that is quite clearly not what is being said. Jesus is saying that “until it is accomplished” nothing will ever pass away even if heaven and earth will pass away. So this is leaving open the possibility and arguably implying that the law will be accomplished before heaven and earth passes away. And this is explicitly confirmed just a verse earlier, where Jesus says that he ( not us) is going to accomplish the law and what he is saying applies to the time until he does so. This similarly characterizes the rest of what he says. Right after he says that “until it is accomplished” nothing will pass away, he says “therefore” anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly… This means that “until it is accomplished” ( i.e. until he accomplishes it) anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven.

        It is also worth pointing out that Jesus speaks in this passage about the “law and the prophets” which is the entire Old Testament, or the whole Hebrew Bible. He is not specifically thinking about the law of Moses ( although of course it includes that). That gives strength to the idea that Jesus sees himself and his earthly ministry as the fulfilment of the law and the prophets. He regularly says that something has to happen to him “according to the scriptures”, by which he implies that his life on earth is fulfilling the scriptures. In Luke 4:21 he reads a passage from Isaiah in a synagogue and says: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Similarly, he tells the pharisees that Moses wrote about him (John 5:46) In other words, Jesus saw many parts of the Hebrew scripture being fulfilled in him during his earthly ministry, which gives strength to the idea that the same thing is going on in Matthew 5:17.

        Moreover, your response assumes that it is only what Jesus taught that matters as far as Christian theology is concerned. But Christians have always regarded the rest of the New Testament as being inspired by God too. So you cannot apply your own criterion of divine inspiration and say that only Jesus’s words have authority. It is then irrational to make a case about something that is wrong in Christian theology, when you reject parts of Christian theology when it fits your argument to do so, such as the inspiration of the rest of the New Testament, and the writings of the Apostles.

        In addition, let’s look at the wider context to give us a clue to what Jesus means. It doesn’t make sense to interpret it as saying that every jot and tittle of the law still applies after his ministry, because in all four the gospels Jesus contradicts or corrects the law in several places. This includes when Jesus contradicts the Old Testament rule of “eye for an eye, and tooth for tooth” (Matt. 5:38) The rule itself comes from Exodus 21:24; Lev. 24:20 and Deut. 19:21. Jesus also contradicts the food laws by saying that: “nothing that enters a man from the outside can defile him; but the things that come out of a man, these are what defile him.” ( Mark 7:15). Jesus also contradicts the Old Testament law on its prescriptions for divorce by saying that Moses only had that law for their “hardness of heart” (Matt. 19:8). Also, when confronted by the pharisees for allowing his disciples to collect food on the Sabbath, he doesn’t answer their accusation that it is unlawful by saying that it is lawful, but by appealing to to something that King David did that was also unlawful. (Matt. 12:1-8). So you’re definitely not correct that Jesus no where says that certain laws do not have to be followed. Most of what I just quoted cannot be explained by having a different interpretation of the law, when Jesus very explicitly contradicts those laws. In fact, in his teaching on divorce, Jesus says not only that the law of Moses is not ideal on that point, but that you are immoral if you follow the law on the question of divorce.

        You admit that the rest of the New Testament agrees with me but claims that the Apostles twisted what Jesus said just because they knew the law was unpopular with Gentiles. Firstly, the first Apostles were all Jews who obeyed the law, and a lot of the New Testament shows how much flak they got from their fellow Jews for relaxing the law for the Gentiles. So the social pressure on them was precisely the other way around. As Jews themselves they would have cared more about what their fellow Jews thought than about what the Gentiles thought, and they would have been more concerned with converting their fellow Jews to Christianity. This is especially true given the attitudes of contempt toward Gentiles that existed within Jewish culture at that time, that you were not even supposed to eat with Gentiles and they were regarded as “unclean” for reasons derived from the Law of Moses. The pressure on them would have been to keep the law as is. You offer no evidence that these Apostles did twist Jesus’s words and it is implausible that they did, because they were willing to go to the death for their belief in Jesus. I think it is unlikely that they were willing to be tortured and die for their belief in someone’s divine authority while at the same time twisting that person’s words for their own gain.

        You say: “The OT isn’t just ceremonial law, another attempt that Christians often use to try to avoid having to follow this god’s law.” I never said and I’ve never heard any Christian theologian say that the whole Old Testament, or the whole Law of Moses, is ceremonial law. Christians have maintained that the moral laws of the Old Testament continue to be binding, partly because many of them are reaffirmed in the New Testament. The ceremonial law ( which are laws about food and clothing, sacrifices, and ritual purity) are regarded as moot because many passages in the New Testament, some already quoted in our exchange. Similarly, legal penalties are regarded as moot, because the new people of God are not one nation with a state and government, but many people, from many nations united by Christ. The book of Hebrews explains that Jesus’s sacrifice completes the laws about sacrifices and ritual purity, and so they are no longer required. Laws about food are explicitly contradicted in the New Testament by Jesus, Paul and Peter. 

        You also claim that Jesus contradicts Peter when Peter invites the Gentiles and approves of them, while Jesus affirms that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. This is very selective. Jesus does place priority on the Jews during the first part of his earthly ministry, and so does the Apostles. Paul says that the gospel should go “first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.” ( Romans 1:16) The messiah and his ministry was promised first to Israel, which is why Jesus makes them a priority at first. The verse about the Syro-Phoenecian woman that you quote is often used by atheists as evidence of everything bad about Jesus. Normally when Jesus encountered Gentiles, he was immediately willing to help them ( such as the Roman centurion in Luke 7:1-10). He heals a demon-possesed man who was probably a Gentile ( Matthew 8:28-34). Jesus ministers to and shows kindness to a Samaritan woman (John 4: 1-42) . The parable of the Good Samaritan, obviously has a Samaritan as the hero of the story, and not only that, his actions are contrasted with the inferior moral character of Jewish priests who did not help ( Luke 10:25-35). Even though Jesus at first instructs his disciples to not go and preach in Gentile-Majority cities, after his earthly ministry is done, he instructs his disciples to bring his message to all nations even to the “remotest parts of the earth” (Matthew 28:16-20; Mark 16:14-16). This follows the same pattern that Paul affirms in Romans: “first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.” So, it is clear that the interaction with the Syro-Phoenecian woman is not representative of his attitude to Gentiles which means it can be plausibly concluded that it is specific to that circumstance and that particular woman. About your comment about calling Jesus “master”, Jesus often (though not always) regards faith in him and his divine authority as a precondition for his favour whether he is dealing with both Jews and Gentiles.

        Finally, you make a number of claims about the character of morality based on the Bible, some of which I’ve already responded to in response to your comment in a different post. I’ll quote some of that comment here.

        You say that Christians do like to claim that other Christians aren’t doing it right and later claim that What do you believe this proves? You make it clear later on: “In that Christians contradict each other, there is little reason to think that their religion is based on reality.” Atheists also disagree with one another about morality and about what is most rational. And scientists disagree with one another too. Does that mean science and rationality are false? So why does disagreement among Christians imply that the Bible or Christianity is false? You claim that the God of the Bible cannot be a standard of objective morality because there are changes. Let’s suppose that the mere fact that there are changes shows that the morality of the Bible is not objective. In order for this to be true, you have to believe in Biblical inerrancy. If you abandon this doctrine and see the Bible more as an “unfolding revelation” of God, as something that gets more accurate until it gets to the New Testament, then there is no problem. So your point does not falsify Christian morality or Christianity. We would only have to abandon one doctrine that is not even mentioned in any of the early creeds of Christianity. But we don’t need to do that, because changes do not necessarily imply a lack of objective morality. There can be moral absolutes without their application always being consistent, and there can be situations where all moral absolutes cannot be honoured and we must choose between them ( such as lying to Nazis to protect Jews from unjust execution). This doesn’t mean there is no objective morality. It just means that there are many different circumstances and that the application of moral absolutes will not always look the same. The more different the circumstances, the more different the application may be. Also, to quote from my other comment in response to you: “You claim that the Bible itself underwent change in morality. As explained above, what changed is the adherence to the ceremonial laws, and laws of ritual purity. Christians still regard all the moral laws of the Old Testament as valid and Christian societies regarded the Old Testament moral laws as valid (which is why homosexuality was criminalized in Western countries until recently). And the fact that adherence to these laws changed has nothing to do with objectivity. Israel was a state, and like any political entity, its laws are as much a function of practicality as morality. And that practicality is determined by its circumstances and the character of its people. To say that legal and even moral requirements change to some degree based on circumstance does not undermine objective morality. Everybody, including yourself, recognizes this.”

        I will add that it is mostly ceremonial laws that are abandoned. Divorce and the “eye for an eye” rule can apply to the “moral” category, you may say, but Jesus specifically says that the teaching of divorce was an accommodation for the character of the people, and eye for an eye rule was a system of torts and civil claims, not necessarily a moral rule. I continue: “Even if you are correct that the Bible’s moral compass has shifted, if you want to judge the Bible based on fickle moral intuitions, then you have as little justification for saying what is right as the Bible does, because both are then fickle. But you are wrong. Even if the Bible’s morality has changed, moral intuitions are far more changeable from culture to culture and throughout history. Think of all the wildly different things that people have regarded as right with stone cold conviction.”

        For example, your intuitions tell you it is fine, even commendable, to take pleasure in the pain of those you deem less moral than yourself ( i.e. Schadenfreude). The moral intuitions of others, including my own, not least my belief in Christian morality and Jesus’s teachings on forgiveness and mercy, would tell me this is very wrong.

        I have also already responded to your claims about God killing people:

        “You say “This happens especially well when a Christian tries to claim that genocide and the murder of people is okay if their god wants to do it but isn’t okay if a human does the exact same thing.” Well obviously if God exists he has the prerogative to end human life when he sees fit. If you don’t recognize this, then you are as good as assuming that God cannot exist – only a very powerful human being can exist. God is a being whose idea of what is right is better than yours. If you think that such a being cannot exist, then you are simply assuming atheism and so arguing in a circle. If the human idea of the good cannot be improved upon, then a God cannot exist, because, God, if he exists, will obviously have a better idea of what is good and right than we do. If God exists, he is sovereign, which means he has to decide when people die and when they live. He has to deliver judgment, by for example, destroying evil people.”

        I will add to this here, that it clearly does make sense for there to be different moral requirements on us than on God, because we are finite creatures and God is inifinite Creator, who inhabits a position of authority and knowledge that we don’t have. And if the God of the Bible exists then his nature is the standard of the Good. The rest of what you say is basically just the Euthyphro Dilemma. I encourage you to look at my response to the Euthyphro Dilemma in the following article: 

        Finally, I specifically address the idea that Christians kill people who disagree with them in the article itself against Harris, but you do not respond to this. Also, if you believe that the Allies’ actions in World War 2 was justified and that law enforcement and police, in general, is justified, then you too believe that it is morally justified in some circumstances to kill people who you disagree with. 

        You conclude: “As soon as you can show your god exists, then the claims of “sin” are no more than imaginary crimes against an imaginary being. All your claims depend on that one presupposition. This is the real argument atheists use : Christianity is likely wrong because there is no evidence for the god or the essential claims of the bible. We also have morality changing in the bible, dependent on the time and worshipers. Each Christian claims to have the right interpretation of these writings by an ignorant and frightened people, but we have yet to see that any of these interpretations are any more true than the others. In that Christians contradict each other, there is little reason to think that their religion is based on reality.”

        It is not clear what “presupposition” you say “all” my claims depend on. Please clarify here. I think you mean that all my claims are based on the presupposition that God exists. That is not true. I was responding to Harris’s accusations that Biblical morality is immoral and I make clear that if  God exists, one cannot say that they are, because if God exists then it makes sense that it would be immoral to disrespect God. Also, I point out that basis on which he judges the morality of the Old Testament is much less reliable. Harris’s argument seems to hypothetically grant that God exists in order to determine whether the behaviour of that God is consistent with what you would expect if God does exist. I simply do the same. To address your claims about the existence of God, my site is filled with arguments for God’s existence and reference to philosophers who develop them better than I do. You have not engaged with these arguments here, only to imply that they either don’t exist or don’t count as evidence, without saying why. You say that the writers of the Bible are “ignorant and frightened” people. This idea that we are inherently superior based on technological progress and scientific knowledge is badly supported. Why does scientific knowledge make us more moral than our ancestors? Why does scientific knowledge mean we have better knowledge of metaphysics and ultimately reality than our ancestors? These things are only true if you believe that science is metaphysics ( or scientism), which is the presupposition of your own view without arguing for it. Also, scientism arguably implies moral nihilism, an argument for which is what you will also find in the link I provided as an answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma. So better knowledge of science is definitely not going to make us more moral. Even if they were more frightened than us, which is debatable, I’m not sure why that makes them wrong. This is just the ad hominem fallacy. You have to address the claims rather than the characteristics of the person. How fearful someone is doesn’t imply that what they are saying is wrong, anymore than confidence and the lack of fear implies that someone is speaking the truth. I responded to your idea that disagreement among Christians implies the falsity of Christianity earlier in this comment. The idea that morality of the Bible changes I responded to as well a little earlier in this comment. 

        I want to invite you to take closer look, and to read a few academic apologists with an open mind. You can read Robert Merrihew Adam’s Finite and Infinite Goods for your issues about morality and God. William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith is a good summary of arguments for God’s existence and gives evidence for some central claims of Christianity ( the self-understanding of Jesus and his Resurrection). I believe that God loves you and is inviting you into a relationship with him. Jesus Christ died for you and wants you to be saved. I want to implore you not to refuse his invitation.


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